Modi's politics of vishwas, the history of Indian dissent and other ideas you may have missed on the Friday Q&A

A look back at some of the many fascinating conversations we had in 2020.

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2020 Clip Show

Almost every Friday for the last six months, we have brought you a long interview with an expert, scholar or author on Indian politics and policy – along with recommendations from them on what you else you should be reading, watching or listening to next.

Subjects have ranged from an alternative history of Partition to the monumental jobs problem that faces Indian policymakers to the complex, violent reality of modern Pakistan. And we have had a chance to speak to renowned scholars like Romila Thapar, Christophe Jaffrelot, Manan Ahmed and more.

Reminder: If you haven’t already, subscribe to the Political Fix to get these Q&As in your inbox every week.

And please email with feedback on the format and suggestions for who you would like to hear from in 2021.

As the end of 2020 approaches, we though we might take you back to a few of these interviews that are worth going back to, especially if you missed them the first time around.

Below, a few interesting tidbits from the many conversations we had over the year. If you want more reading material for the end-of-year holiday season, check out the full archive of The Political Fix Q&As.

Neelanjan Sircar is an assistant professor at Ashoka University and a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. I spoke to Sircar about his recent paper arguing that the support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reflects a ‘politics of vishwas’, trust, rather than economic accountability.

Read the whole interview here.

Do you think this is a fundamental shift in the way Indian people treat leaders, or simply a once-in-a-lifetime leader who can inspire this sort of politics?

You can kind of tell from my earlier point here that – and it’s not just my argument – that the process that started in the ‘90s is coming to fruition. It isn’t that we haven’t had charismatic leaders. And of course in India that has been true for a long time.

But it is a certain kind of politics which makes factionalism very hard within a party. The aggressiveness with which you can eject or minimise the faction is a part of what makes this such an effective political form.

So I agree that Modi might be a singular political leader and he and Shah may be singular in their political talents. But they’re also picking up something fundamental about an organisational form that is essentially starting to dominate Indian politics.

When you think about the problems of money and criminality in politics, fundamentally the point is that your MLA or MP does not matter for policy, your MP only matters to win the seat.

And when all sides are playing that game, you get these kinds of pathologies. This is essentially a political form and a set of empirical phenomena that we have been seeing rise from the 1990s. What we’re seeing now is the national manifestation of something that I think started in the 1990s.

There’s a big question about why it started in the ’90s. Why in structure and function does that happen? So my simple answer is that the Congress blew up. When the Congress blew up, this became a very, very effective way of becoming a grabbing power at the state level.

That requires a little more empirical work. But it’s clear that a certain kind of political form has started to dominate and you see it even in the language we have about the Congress.

“Why isn’t Rahul Gandhi such a leader? Why isn’t Rahul Gandhi behaving like him, why is Rahul Gandhi so bad at speaking?”

It’s actually quite strange and I’m not sure people in India realise how strange it is to somehow believe that a national party that represents something as diverse as India should be completely dependent upon the charisma and the wittiness of its national leader. It’s a very odd way actually to see a well-functioning democratic system.

We’ve seen Modi move towards a statesman like role and an effort to promote Amit Shah and Adityanath. Do you think the BJP recognises this idea, and are trying to replicate it?

We’re coming into a period where we’re going to start seeing some very interesting contradictions. This isn’t the first time that we have seen aggressive personal politics take over a country, right? And typically, this sort of falls apart when the money runs out.

Why was it so important for the BJP to solve its funding lines with electoral bonds and so on, much like Indira Gandhi did with banning corporate funding? It’s similar, basically saying, “If I’m able to dominate the funding space in this manner, and extract that kind of money from the system, that’s what allows me to keep the oil in my machine right to pay every panna pramukh.”

It’s very expensive, not to mention all of the money you’re losing on internet bans, all of the money on Kashmir. It’s an unbelievable cost. A repressive state is a deeply expensive state to run.

Now, what ends up happening when the money runs out is that it some contradictions keep coming up, certain people get upset, certain leaders start coming up. A lot of things start going wrong at one time. And that’s one of the stories that people say happened in the late ’80s, early ’90s in India.

That’s what happens when you don’t have enough money to pay off people you’ve been paying off for so long.

For now, they still have it. But who knows about the next two, three years? Because the economy was in bad shape, corporates are already in bad shape. India was already bleeding money, pre-coronavirus, and now obviously, it’s going to be a bit more extreme.

Even in the case of Indira Gandhi, the fortunes turned when the economy crashed right after 1971 after a huge election. It didn’t take long before it got to a situation where she said, I now declare Emergency.”

Christophe Jaffrelot is Avantha Chair and Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at the King’s India Institute, teaches South Asian politics and history at Sciences Po in Paris, and is an Overseas Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I spoke to Jaffrelot about his new book, India’s First Dictatorship; The Emergency, 1975–1977, co-written with Pratinav Anil, in which he points out that the Emergency wasn’t just a blip in India’s democratic record from which the country quickly recovered immediately.

Read the whole interview here.

Why do you consider it important to look at not only what the Emergency changed, but how it, in some ways simply continued or accelerated pre-existing trends in India at that point?

It is important because it offers an entry point into India’s polity at large. We show in the book that the Emergency was precipitated by the JP Movement and the way the judiciary went after Mrs Gandhi. But it would have not been possible, she would have not be able to impose it if, for years, she had not prepared the ground for it by centralising power at the expense of the “Congress system” that Nehru had built: in contrast to Nehru’s constant effort to build consensus by negotiating with the state bosses the party was relying upon, she short-circuited them after the 1969 split, related directly to the people (as evident from the populist overtone of the 1971 campaign) and appointed yes-men as Chief Ministers or as PCC Presidents.

Having de-institutionalised the Congress, she could have her MPs vote in favour of the Emergency without even senior ministers saying a word (Jagjivan Ram left in early 1977 when he knew he had nothing to lose). In a way Mrs Gandhi presided over the transformation of Congress in a manner that BJP is emulating today – and the Congress never fully recovered from this process.

Having completed this work, where do you situate the Emergency within the broader story of Indian democracy – parenthesis, aberration, turning point, or something else?

It’s not a parenthesis, because India did not return to status quo ante in 1977: the Congress was structurally changed. It’s not an aberration because many people supported the Emergency and saw in it a positive development, be they part of the CPI, the Shiv Sena or the corporate sector.

It is something of a turning point, as Gyan Prakash argues in his Emergency Chronicles, because, in the wake of the JP Movement, it further contributed to mainstream the Sangh parivar with the help of well-established opposition parties, including the Congress (O), the Socialist Party and the BLD.

But for us, in fact, the Emergency is still something else, an eye-opener. It is revealing, not only of the fragility of democracy, but also of the fact that many people could live with it and had hardly any problem with tyranny, so long as it did not affect them, but not the poor.

Because who were victims of mass sterilisation and “slum rehabilitation”? The poor. For them, the Emergency was neither a parenthesis nor an aberration or a turning point, but simply more of the same. But for us, the observers, the fact that the Emergency, for most of the people, introduced a difference in degree, not in kind – that’s an eye-opener!

Romila Thapar is one of India’s most distinguished historians, a recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize, and a public intellectual whose career spans more than half a decade. I spoke to Thapar about her new book, Voices of Dissent, which looks at moments in India’s past in which the dominant narrative was challenged.

Read the whole interview here.

Why is it important for us to situate dissent in the building of Indian culture? Is that something you think our broader understanding of history – even in academic spaces – lacks?

Dissent is many-faceted. I have only spoken of it in its manifestation in a few aspects, and that too limited to a very few traditions in the examples I have discussed. Since it is both in dialogue with and parallel to what is maintained by established authority, a full treatment would require many volumes. In any case my intention in writing this essay was to show, with a few examples, how it arises, and the creativity that results from its dialogue where it disagrees with existing thought and practice, or else how it carries forward ideas that may seem dormant. It opens out much more in the present.

It is important to the understanding of any culture that its history never was and can never be a narrow restricted movement from the past to the present, and that at no point was it questioned by those who were part of it. When the Shramanas – Buddhists, Jainas, Ajivikas – questioned Vedic Brahmanism, there followed a long period of discussion about the ideas that came out of this questioning. This is reflected not only in the remarkable inscriptions of Ashoka Maurya but also in sections of the Mahabharata that were composed at this time.

There was also more than a hint of it in the subsequent forms taken by Hinduism, as for instance by some of the bhakti sants. When the bhakti poet Ravidas describes his vision of a utopia and speaks of a social equality that had no use for caste hierarchies, he is giving form to dissent. This tells us about the priorities of those that control society and those that question it. But these aspects don’t often find a place in the teaching of social history, they remain religious texts whose implicit views about society are seldom commented upon analytically.

The book sketches out dissent as it played out in the religious landscape in ancient and medieval India before moving to anti-colonial dissent, and then to the sort of criticism of the government that is now labeled “anti-national”. Why did you draw on this path, rather than say looking back primarily at political dissent in Indian history?

The idioms in which a society expresses itself change in history. They are not identical from one period to the next. This is in part why researching and writing the history of thought is intellectually so exciting. It’s the unfolding of ideas in relation to society and their mutual impact. I chose the idiom of religious ideas for evident reasons.

First, there are more texts from the past focusing on this aspect than on most others, so one can get a fair amount of information. There are not all that many texts from pre-modern India on theories of explanation relating to society and politics. Commentaries were written on the dharma-shastras, or there is the much-quoted text on political economy, the Arthashastra. Some of the ideas in the latter have been linked to notions of causality and logic in stating explanations, but these are incidental to the description of a political economy with which the text is primarily concerned. These subjects tend to be discussed in small, scattered segments.

This may be the point at which we historians should move on to researching socio-political dissent combing through a range of texts. Secondly, because of the close inter-twining of religion and caste, exploring the religious idiom incorporates to some extent the exploration of the social and political as well. These dimensions are often more apparent in dissenting ideas.

Constantino Xavier is a nonresident fellow in the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and a fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress. I spoke to Xavier about his research on connectivity within South Asia and how well India understands its neighbourhood.

Read the whole interview here.

It’s common to hear people say “Neighbourhood First” has failed, pointing at how the domestic politics in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka do not seem to be in favour of India. Is this a misreading?

I get a little restless when people declare “Neighbourhood First” either a total failure or an amazing success. It’s like two refrains of the same, simplistic song. There are several reasons why I see people rushing to each of these conclusions.

First, unfortunately we still have a rather poor media coverage of India’s neighbouring countries. In fact, you had a better system of regional correspondents back in the 1960s and ’70s than you have today. You had deep reportage from Yangon, Colombo, Dhaka, up to the 1970s, including from The Times of India. Today I can only think of one solid correspondent, The Hindu’s Meera Srinivasan in Colombo. So we have the illusion of immediate information, assuming you can find out about Nepal or Sri Lanka with a couple of clicks and then dictate India’s failure or success.

The second reason is that the complex neighbourhood offers great fodder for political games. So every government wants to politicise its great success in the region. And I think whoever is in opposition tends to see the neighbourhood always as a total failure. And the trick is that whenever you look at the region, at any point in time in the past 70 years, you can always find cases to push either the narratives of success or failure, because it’s a very complex region. I mean, how can you put seven or eight different neighbouring countries in the same basket to make categorical judgments? We are talking about a complex, diverse region, where there is a continuous but impossible policy objective to get so many different ducks in line.

The third reason is this facile temptation which reflects the old thinking in the Indian neighbourhood approach, of constantly looking at either pro-India or anti-India factions in these countries. The appearance of China has modified this to the supposedly pro-India or pro-China factions. These are rather reductionist terms that fail completely to grasp the complex politics in Kathmandu, Dhaka or Colombo and Male – today, there are no more eternal pro-India factions in these countries, if there ever were.

The only similar dimension you now have in each of these neighbouring countries is leaders that are trying to maximise their country’s national interest by balancing India, China and other countries. That’s a complex, difficult game. In fact, it’s the same game India has played at the global level for many decades. India’s non-alignment was not very different from this: you are playing and balancing with the Americans and the Russians and the Europeans and others. And the idea was always trying to keep that very fine balance, diversifying your options and playing off these great powers to maximise you strategic autonomy.

And that’s exactly what Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka are doing today. India cannot afford to think of permanent friends anymore in these countries, there will no longer be any so-called pro-India leaders, parties, constituencies. India now can only afford to have permanent interests and those interests are to deliver more and connect closer with these countries. It will have to be a more transactional approach that focuses on long-term socio-economic interdependence, amidst growing competition with China and other countries offering alternatives to India.

You may have heard people say that India is somehow losing the neighbourhood. I would say that it’s the opposite, India is actually doing more than ever, but it is the neighbourhood that is losing India. It is the countries of South Asia that are moving on, escaping the traditional region called South Asia with India as its gravitational core. That is an old region that is fast disappearing.

Look, for example, at Pakistan where the concept of South Asia is completely sidelined today, compared to just 15 years ago when there was still a momentum to reconnect and normalize with India, for example through the idea of SAARC [the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation]. But that South Asian identity of the Pakistani state is almost eroded today.

You may be critical of it and say it rejects cultural, historical and other subcontinental ties, but the reality is that the Pakistani state has made a strategic decision to connect more with China. Effectively Pakistan is gravitating towards China, towards Central Asia, to Afghanistan, to the Gulf region. So when the Pakistani leadership is not excited about SAARC, or even boycotting it, I’m not surprised. What does Pakistan today really have in terms of economic benefits of trying to make SAARC work and reaching out to Nepal, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, all the way across India?

So in a similar way, other South Asian states are also changing their geo-strategic and economic alignments beyond the traditional concept of the subcontinent and India at its heart. It’s a natural development reflecting two to three decades of economic opening. For Nepal, for example, the Himalayas are shorter today than they were in the 1950s, which opens up new trade and interdependence possibilities with the Tibetan plateau and China.

Bangladesh is poised to overpass India in terms of GDP per capita when just three decades ago it was seen as a global basket case for absolute poverty, and it is now on the way to become a lower middle income economy positioning itself as a regional hub between India and Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka is also connecting to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Rather than a threat, as in the past, I think India should see all this as an opportunity. It is unavoidable, in any case – you can’t dictate Colombo or Kathmandu to pursue an India first policy anymore. But you can develop strategic connectivity and interdependence and use that as transactional leverage if push comes to shove.

Jabin T Jacob is associate professor at Shiv Nadar University and adjunct research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. I spoke to Jacob about the tensions between India and China in Eastern Ladakh, and how well the two countries understand each other.

You made a more structural argument in the ORF piece, that for better long-term ways of addressing the India China conflict, New Delhi needs to be transparent and open, to pull in more voices from outside government. What has your experience been with this and what has to change?

I mean what I wrote is partly from my experience. Essentially, there is a feeling and when I say government I don’t necessarily mean the political parties, but the bureaucracy, because ultimately they are the ones who continue in power, they are the ones who control the purse strings.

It’s a very difficult relationship. In the early years, a couple of generations ago, there was a sense of mutual respect between bureaucrats and academics. Partly, I have a social explanation for this that they all came from the same social class – journalists, academics, diplomats, IAS, they’re all from the same school, social class.

Today, India is a much more egalitarian society. You have people from all walks of life, backgrounds, communities coming into these fields. That sort of linkage between these groups has broken down. Then you have these professional interest groups develop and some of this turns rivalrous. Some of this is just lack of time to communicate, so communication breaks down, and different understandings of what government money ought to be achieving.

Government also has its limitations on resources, so it can’t just give blindly to think tanks which are interested in long-term research.

Unfortunately without long-term research on China, Chinese politics, Chinese society, the Communist Party, Chinese enterprises, you are not going to be able to have policy-relevant information. You can’t have a two-page policy brief without very deep understanding and for that deep understanding you need to open up the purse-string and provide money: To the universities, for field trips, for language learning etc.

The government itself doesn’t have any language capacity. Whether in the ITBP or the Army, Chinese language speakers are at a premium. If that is the case, how are you going to communicate on the border, with troops, when things are getting out of hand.

Now if you don’t have your own investments in your own people then at least you should encourage investments from the universities. Now at a time when I did my university education in JNU, I did not have money for a field trip. I didn’t get a government scholarship either.

I went on a scholarship to Taiwan that the Taiwanese provided me, on Taiwanese money. So whatever expertise I managed to develop on China subsequently has been because people saw that on my CV, that I spent two years in Taiwan, learnt the language and therefore they come and give me the opportunities that I have.

I have very little to thank the government for that, except for very affordable fees at JNU. Now even that is being increased, and being pulled out of the reach of ordinary Indians. If that happens, it is as if the government wants to keep all knowledge within the four walls. When you are only listening to each other in an echo chamber, you will have distorted information, you will have poor and wrong analysis.

You need to bring in outside expertise.”

Read the whole interview here.

Pallavi Raghavan is an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University and a historian working on international relations. I spoke to Raghavan about her book, Animosity at Bay; An Alternative History of the India-Pakistan Relationship, 1947-1952, and what the cooperation between the two post-Partition states in the early years after Independence tells us.

Read the whole interview here.

Some of the efforts you detail, like the sharing of the waters or the Nehru-Liaquat pact, end successfully. Others, like the No-War pact, fail. But your argument is that the nature of discussion leading up to all of these reflected closer collaboration than people realise.

What the book tries to set up is that in contrast to a lot of the literature on the India-Pakistan relationship, decisions about war or peace between India and Pakistan were not made in a knee-jerk way, trying to perpetuate hostility with each other.

If you look at the kind of correspondence on the No-War Pact, one of the things that does come out is that nobody rejected it outright. They thought it through and then rejected it. There was this understanding that somewhat foundational to the way in which India and Pakistan are defined is a necessity for them to have a stable coexistence. That’s the reason they thought it through and then they rejected it.

The No-War correspondence was playing out simultaneously with the refugee crisis in Bengal, a very rapid deterioration of the India-Pakistan relationship. Personalities were calling on Nehru and putting his government in danger for not being able to take a strong enough stance against Liaquat Ali Khan.

So, the reasoning for trying to take up this correspondence about the No-War pact was also a way for Nehru’s government to survive. And it was also a way in which Nehru and Liaquat Ali thought that they could assert control on the making of the narrative on Pakistan.

They were trying to make themselves felt, they were trying to make their authority felt, in the whole India-Pakistan landscape. And so yes, the correspondence failed. But there are very deep-rooted and instrumental reasons that the correspondence was initiated in the first place. And those reasons, I think, continue to have validity in the India-Pakistan landscape.

In your conclusion, you don’t draw out too much of the impact on affairs today. But it’s almost impossible to not look at the way the BJP is trying to redefine the Indian state by using the very premise of Partition, or the question of minorities, to legitimise its understanding of the nation.

The book doesn’t really engage with with the dynamics of the India-Pakistan relationship today. And there is a good reason for that. I’m a historian and in the book I looked at issues in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and I didn’t claim to make an assessment about the dynamics today.

But at the same time, what I was trying to also bring out in the conclusion was that the imperative taken on the India-Pakistan relationship in the 1950s was the primacy of the nation-state. It was the idea of the primacy of the Westphalian nation state, something that was self-contained and clearly defined.

Whereas if you want to take away from that, or move away from that and instead you say that no, it’s not the state, but it’s the religion, or it’s the civilisation, or it’s the law, or it’s another marker of identity that should have primacy as far as decision-making on India-Pakistan relationships are concerned, then I think that also leads you to differing outcomes.